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Konchalovsky's Worm's-Eye View of the Brutal Stalin Years

December 25, 1991|KENNETH TURAN | TIMES FILM CRITIC

Be they as benign as the King of Siam or malevolent like Ivan the Terrible, larger-than-life tyrants make memorable movie protagonists. But with subjects so excessive, a vantage point must be chosen with care, and Andrei Konchalovsky has come up with an exceptionally strong one in "The Inner Circle."

The year is 1939, the hour is very late and the KGB knocking on the Moscow door of the newly married Ivan Sanshin (Tom Hulce) strikes absolute panic into the man's heart, for people answering such knocks are more often than not never heard from again. But though Ivan is spirited away in a big black limousine, he returns with a new job and a wonderful secret: He is now Joseph Stalin's projectionist, the man who shows films to the man who rules the Kremlin.

Of all the 20th Century's dictators, Stalin is perhaps the most perversely fascinating, not only for the unprecedented horrors he inflicted, but also because he managed to make his subjects revere him while he was slaughtering them wholesale. The cult of personality that grew up around him is almost unimaginable, not only in terms of expected things like statues and portraits but also the fear that grew up around him of doing anything at all: putting a greasy can on Stalin's picture in the paper or having his cinematic image burn up in a projector, that someone somewhere might misconstrue.

The son of the man wrote the Soviet national anthem, director and co-writer (with Anatoli Usov) Konchalovsky has chosen to live and work in the West for more than 10 years. Still, he clearly remembers what he has heard about Stalin's time, from his father among others, and has done a thoroughly absorbing job of putting a human face on the era's horrors, of finding, in his own words, "the drop of water through which you can see the entire ocean."

Though the story of this particular worm's-eye view grew out of tales told by Stalin's actual projectionist, one Alexander Ganshin, Konchalovsky has consciously changed him from a specific individual to a kind of Soviet everyman (hence the name Ivan), someone who zealously swallows the party line, no matter how unsavory, and who loves Stalin even more than his beautiful wife Anastasia (Lolita Davidovich). When push comes to shove, Ivan will take any amount of abuse as long as he can believe Comrade Stalin thinks it's necessary.

"The Inner Circle" (at the Century City Cineplex Odeon, rated PG-13) is especially adept at portraying the fascinating psychological reality of those unreal days, when betrayals and purge trials went hand in hand with the belief that "There is probably no one kinder in the whole world" than the man they called "the Master." More than that, the film also meticulously recreates the physical world of the Kremlin (it was the first western picture to film behind those dread walls), bringing to life in involving detail the plush screening room where Stalin, often in the company of secret police chief Lavrenti Beria (the kind of tasty cameo we've come to expect from Bob Hoskins) and other major players, watched everything from American Westerns to the latest home-grown boy-loves-tractor epics.

Regrettably, what this film is not so good at is involving you in the more mundane parts of its story, namely the marriage of Ivan and Anastasia. Lolita Davidovich seems a bit lost in her role as the docile Anastasia, and her long-running obsession with the orphaned daughter of a liquidated neighbor, the film's major subplot, never involves us as it should.

Tom Hulce is a question mark of a different order. It is easy to see why Konchalovsky cast him as the naive, trusting Ivan: no one is more identified with Little Boy Lost vulnerability, no one can plaster a look of gee-whiz amazement on his face with greater conviction. But what Hulce could use more of is finesse and restraint, and by placing someone who is so relentlessly on the nose in that part, Konchalovsky, whose earlier American films like "Runaway Train" and "Shy People" were not exactly known for their delicacy, has weakened the impact of his work. On firm ground when it recreates the paranoid, duplicitous world of Stalinist reality, "The Inner Circle," like its protagonist, goes awkward and uncertain when emotions of a more genuine sort need to be portrayed.

'The Inner Circle' Tom Hulce: Ivan Sanshin Lolita Davidovich: Anastasia Bob Hoskins: Beria Bess Meyer: Katya Feodor Chaliapin: The Professor Aleksandr Zbruev: Stalin

Released by Columbia Pictures. Director Andrei Konchalovsky. Producer Claudio Bonivento. Screenplay Andrei Konchalovsky & Anatoli Usov. Cinematographer Ennio Guarnieri. Editor Henry Richardson. Costumes Nelli Fomina. Music Eduard Artemyev. Production design Ezio Frigerio. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes.

MPAA-rated PG-13.

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